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Have you ever had a moment where the light bulb comes on and the way you have looked at something for years is changed in that instant? I had such a light bulb moment last month when I attended a session sponsored by Nexus. 

The presenter discussed the concept of "hidden rules" which is presented by Ruby K. Payne in her books Framework for Understanding Poverty and Bridges Out of Poverty, and Hidden Rules of Class at Work. I never want to "steal" ideas here so I want to make it clear these aren't my concepts, but it's important to give a brief overview to explain my own "light bulb" moment. 

The concept of "hidden rules" is based upon rules of the various socioeconomic classes in America. Although you could break it down much further for simplicity there are three classes presented: 

Middle Class 

The classes are not so much on a persons current economic situation but rather how they grew up, and how their family grew up - the generational influence of economics on a person. To briefly summarize here are the general ideas: 

In Poverty the goal is survival and the focus is on the present, in middle class the focus is on the future - saving for college and retirement, climbing the corporate ladder, in wealth the focus in on the past - there's a strong emphasis on tradition and the way things have always been. 

So with this, the presenter talked about how the business world is mostly run on the middle class hidden rules. To me and based on what I've seen in my career I would say within corporate America that is true. After all, to run a successful business you need to have the future mindset, it's very hard for business to thrive just getting by day to day. But within different groups in a business the hidden rules can be different. 
But this lesson gave me my big realization. I grew up upper middle class and both of my parents came from solid middle class backgrounds. They never questioned if I wanted to go to college, it was always where. Growing up I wasn't rewarded for good grades or doing chores around the house, it was just the expectation - this is the basis for my attitudes as an adult in the workforce. I don't expect a raise just for doing my job but I want one, so I always try and go above and beyond. I thrive on deadlines , its important for me to know what's expected of me and when. BUT, I can understand a little more why not all of my coworkers have these same values, and for years I always patted myself on the back for having a better work ethic and I'm not saying I'm not smart or hard working but the reality is it's been programed into me from birth, I just do what I know.
To me it brings up the question though whose responsibility it is to tip off people from a different background on the unofficial rules. I've had many a coworker who while not quite violating the company dress code (or sometimes they do) just doesn't dress quite "right" for an office environment, I've also experienced / witnessed tone of voice that comes off rude, bad email etiquette, lack of attention to deadlines or "the bigger picture" and a lot of other behaviors that just don't set someone up for success in the business world. I've been taught the importance of a proper resume, cover letter and thank you letter since high school (my well to do suburban high school in special elective classes mind you) but not everyone gets this kind of knowledge imparted upon them. On one hand I desperately want to see people do well. I'm a huge fan of the hand up not hand out approach but where should this knowledge come from. Is it up to corporate America to "train" their employees of the professional behaviors expected? Should a manager of an employee needing a little polish be responsible for their development or is it ok for a co-worker to point out when professionalism is lacking? I personally think employee to employee contact could be super awkward / inappropriate.  I feel like unfortunately right now it's none of the above and there are plenty of hard working, bright people who miss out on advancement for wearing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing or sitting the wrong way at a company meal - all of which they do without realizing. It's not fair and it makes me sad. I haven't figured out yet what I personally can do  as if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem but I do know that I am going to try to cut people a little slack, try different ways of wording things, and be a little less judgey. For now, it's the best I can do.  
If you are interested in corporate manners the lady who gave my presentation writes an excellent blog:


  1. I think it would be awkward to fill in a coworker in on the unwritten rules of the office, especially if it were something kind of sensitive, unless you were good friends with them. That's something best left to managers. As for the whole where does this knowledge come from thing I try to give people the benefit of the doubt about knowledge based things and I try to look and see if they acting like how they feel they should act to be a good person. Sometimes you have to be taught things and I really don't want to judge other people because they came from different circumstances so they weren't able to learn certain cultural things that I had access to because my parents were relatively wealthy. I think we all have the responsibility to look at other people and not judge them by their superficial actions but by their intent. I worked in a legal clinic for low income people and I could always tell when people were trying hard to do what seemed best to thank me and show respect for the legal process but they didn't always do the things that my upper middle class self would do.

    (Sorry if this posted twice my browser did something weird when I tried to post the comment.)

  2. Thanks for the insightful comments, I'm do glad there's people like you helping in our legal system


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